diamond geezer

 Saturday, February 11, 2023

A Nice Walk: Rotherhithe (1½ miles)

Sometimes you just want to go for a nice walk, nothing too taxing, a bit of a stroll, lots to see, pretty views, close to public transport, lots of history, widely contrasting, won't take long. So here's a pleasant mile and a half round Rotherhithe, nowhere near enough to make a day of it but a nice walk all the same.

This self-guided walk comes courtesy of Our Rotherhithe and the Rotherhithe & Bermondsey History Society, to whom I say thanks. It's available as a copiously-detailed booklet dated August 2019, a product of the before-times when full-colour 12-page leaflets were still a thing. Back then it was available at 10 different locations including Debbie Western Flowers and Canada Water Library but I only found it on the counter by the ticket office at Rotherhithe station. They've got lots of copies so that's where to head if you want to follow in my footsteps.

According to the blurb the 1½ mile walk "takes about 2 hours at a leisurely pace", but that would be staggeringly leisurely. I had it all wrapped up in an hour, and that included dawdling, stopping to take 150 photos and chatting to the vicar.

Let's start at Canada Water station, the space age millennial rotunda that's acted as the trigger for enormous amounts of redevelopment. But that transformation's all to the east and south whereas we're going north and west where far less has changed. If you need the loo or a Hilary Mantel before setting off then the extraordinarily angular Canada Water Library will oblige. The walk starts with a brief diversion to see the Deal Porters statue, a tribute to long-extinct timber shufflers, although the sculpture's now marooned by the water's edge amid a levelled building site so don't expect to get close.

We're heading out towards the Dockmaster's Office with its splendid clocktower, this one of the first Surrey Docks buildings to be restored in the Eighties by the LDDC. And then we divert off into proper Rotherhithe, the part they didn't get to tweak so is mainly still council houses. We get to cross King George's Field, one of numerous such-named recreational areas created in the 1930s, this one since extended in size due to local bomb damage. The park gate has a jobsworth notice from Southwark council saying they don't grit the paths during bad weather so "Please think about the risk of slipping before entering the park." This is supposedly for environmental reasons rather than lack of funding, but it does come across as ridiculously patronising.

To approach the properly historic bit of Rotherhithe requires walking through a council estate. Not the Canada Estate, whose tower blocks are loosely protected by 'no trespassing' signs and one-way alligator teeth in the road, but the even lowlier Irwell Estate. I looked in on Mayflower Hall on Neptune Street where Southwark's least appealing table sale was taking place, enticed by a cardboard sign on the door promising "CD's, DVD's, New Mugs, Playstaions, Xbox Games, New Plates, Baby Clothes, Books, Kids Games and Essentials". It also listed Covid safety measures including "Cleaning Station Avaible" and "1 person at a time", although 2 seemed frankly unlikely. If any of the professionals from the flats at Canada Water ever ventured this far and handed over a day's salary, they could transform a life.

We turn right at the undertakers, a company that's pre-Victorian according to the blurb but whose premises scream 1993, and not in a good way. We get to view the Edwardian Pumphouse from a safe distance, it now being private flats. And then we creep up on Albion Street, the local shopping hub with its bolted-shut pub, charity shop and community cafe, plus not one but two Scandinavian churches. The building that looks like a block of flats with a belltower is the splendid Finnish Seaman's Church, equipped with a sauna and home to a classic Christmas market. The green-spired church is St Olaf's, a Norwegian asset since 1927, with a delightful sculpture garden out front that's generally unlocked early afternoon. The flats they're currently building between the two churches do neither of them any favours.

It's time to cross the entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which thankfully is achieved via zebra crossing and thereby a doddle. Look out for the dangling metal strips that prevent anything too tall from gaining access, the arch comprising sections of the original cutting shield and the big gates they close when the tunnel's closed. Anyone fascinated by the evolution of Southwark's pedestrian fingerposts will also find much of interest in the vicinity. We're heading for King's Stairs Gardens, alas the mostly-featureless end, although the first burst of daffodils are doing their best by the railings. Ultimate escape is via Paradise Street which is not well-named. I spotted a fox slinking into the playground round the back of the Bosco nursery but you may not be so lucky.

At last we reach the Thames, and bang on the rim of a bend so the views up- and down-stream are excellent. The square of bumpy lawn with a low ruined wall is what's left of Edward III's Manor House, a moated royal hideaway that's hard to picture even with the aid of the interpretation board. Against the river wall is an unusual ensemble of statues titled Dr Salter's Daydream depicting local slum-clearing philanthropists, their daughter and their cat - again read the board for details. And the isolated pub alongside is The Angel whose sign bandies around dates in the 17th century and the middle ages while quietly admitting to being an 1837 rebuild. Drop in for Sam Smiths steak and ale pie with creamy mash or a bowl of Whitby Bay whole tail scampi.

The walk now returns to King's Stairs Gardens but this time Thames-side, where a gilded memorial stands alone on some steps. This is the Jubilee Stone commemorating 1977, 2002 and 2012, unveiled once by the Queen and twice subsequently by the Earl and Countess of Wessex. The path continues under a row of flats to Prince's Stairs, where precipitous foreshore access is available, and then unexpectedly heads back inland. This is to pass a community theatre called London Bubble and a pub called The Ship, the latter looking hospitable in a very Thirties manner except they've used the slogan "There are no strangers here only friends you haven't met yet" outside, twice, so I can't condone entry. After you pass under the Time & Talents arch be sure to turn left into the gardens else you may be greeted by a cheerily condescending volunteer.

Finally we reach peak historical - the heart of old Rotherhithe. Here be workshops, wharves and watchhouses, some almost old enough to be remembered by the Master of the Mayflower. Here be cobbled streets and classic pubs with river terraces, plus the enigmatic Rotherhithe Picture Research Library. Here be lofty St Mary's church (sorry, said the vicar, we're not really open, we've got the builders in). Here be cafes, coffee carts and quirky statues commemorating the departure of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620. And here too is the legendary Brunel Museum perched atop the pioneering Thames Tunnel, its door propped open beckoning you deep within its shaft. I could write umpteen blogposts about everything I've just skated over, let alone where I've been across the previous paragraphs, but that's the joy of this meandering SE16 stroll.

Booklets available at Rotherhithe station while stocks last.

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